Ever since he was drafted in the first round in 2017, T.J. Watt has been far and away the Steelers’ top defender, and in the minds of many, the entire league. Coming off a record-tying 22.5 sack season and a DPOY Award, many wondered if this would be the season the record finally fell.
However it wasn’t meant to be, as he suffered a serious pectoral injury in week one, knocking him out of action until week ten. In his place, his bookend and third-year player, Alex Highsmith, has put his name on the national map, racking up a team-leading 10 sacks, and recently taking home AFC Defensive Player of the Week Honors.
A third-round draft choice out of Charlotte back in 2020, he looks to be yet another diamond-in-the-rough draft steal for former GM Kevin Colbert. His pass rush prowess has fully blossomed in his third season, but his run defense is also opening some eyes, including that of his Defensive Coordinator Teryl Austin.
“He’s got really strong hands, he’s able to hit and extend on guys and disengage from blocks and make things happen,” Austin said today via an official team transcript. “He’s always been, in my mind, a stout run performer.”
In Monday night’s tight 24-17 win over the Colts, Indy was driving deep into Steeler territory with only 30 seconds remaining and obviously needing a score to tie. On third-and-three at the Pittsburgh 26, Pro Bowl running back Jonathan Taylor took the handoff, only to be stonewalled in the backfield by Highsmith. On perhaps the biggest play of the game, on a national audience, Highsmith showed many people why, in my opinion, he’ll be making his first trip to the Pro Bowl after this season.
His sack numbers this year already eclipse his numbers from his first two seasons combined, albeit most of which came as a rotational player. However, his edge setting against the run now shows how well-rounded of a player he’s become. Austin credits this to him playing defensive end full time while in college. However, the NFL is a monstrous jump in competition from a tiny school like Charlotte. Highsmith deservedly should be rewarded for his efforts this offseason with an extension, as the team looks to lock up a core defensive pillar opposite Watt.
“The sack numbers are coming this year, and that’s really good for him. This, to me, means he’s rounded into a really good football player.”